In Matthew 28:18-20, we have these words: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19″Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20″teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.”
The universality of this passage of scripture cannot be denied. Jesus begins with stating that “all authority” has been given to him. Not some authority, not authority over religious things only, not authority over morality only, but ALL authority. The life of the Christian is to be characterized as living under the authority of Christ. Indeed, that is the essence of what it means to make Jesus our Lord. This universal forever excludes the notion that one may be a Christian and still be a worldling.
What Jesus tells the disciples next is to make disciples of ALL the nations. Again, another universal command. Jesus didn’t say, make disciples of the nations that would hear you. He didn’t say not to worry about the nations that don’t have Bibles. Jesus said ALL nations. Again, the collective obligation of Jesus’ disciples is to spread the gospel to ALL nations. Not some, but all. Christianity is to be characterized as sending the gospel into the utmost reaches of the earth, because, every knee will bow. This universal forever excludes the notion that one may be a Christian, yet believe that all of those who have not heard the gospel will somehow be “saved.”
Jesus tells his followers how to make disciples. Baptizing them and teaching them. These words are, in the Greek language, participles. Unlike verbs, participles contain no time of their own. The action of the participles are carried out in the lead verb (“make disciples”). The inescapable conclusion is that one cannot be a disciple without having been taught and having been baptized. The description, however, of the things to be taught in this verse is indeed universal. Jesus said, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” It is incumbent upon us, as Christians, if we are going to respect the words of our Lord in the great commission, to teach those who would be Christians to observe ALL of the things that Jesus commanded. There can be no exceptions. This universal forever excludes the notion that we may observe some things that Jesus commanded, but other things we don’t have to observe (as some are suggesting today).
Now, I wish to point out a couple of distinctions here that we often fail to recognize in this passage. It doesn’t say, “teaching them all things that I have commanded.” Some mistakenly suggest that if we must make disciples by teaching, then we must teach them everything that Jesus commanded before they become Christians and that is simply impossible to do. But, it doesn’t say that we are to teach everything that is commanded, but to teach them to observe everything that is commanded. That can be done relatively quickly, by letting those who would become Christians know that they are to faithfully hold to the commands of Jesus in their life, as they continue to learn those commands, and that whatever may come, they are to always observe those things.
Another thing that the passage does not say: it doesn’t say “teaching them to obey all things that I have commanded.” It says, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” This is a distinction upon which I wish to focus for the remainder of this article, namely, that Jesus didn’t tell us to “obey all things.” Neither did Jesus tell us to teach all things. Jesus told us to teach them to observe all things. Why make such distinctions?
Now, before we even get started, I’m not suggesting that because Jesus didn’t say that we have to “obey” that therefore we do not have to obey Jesus. Yes, we do have to obey if we want to be saved (Hebrews 5:9). However, there are some who ridicule the idea of obeying Jesus and say things such as “which commands are we supposed to obey?” And they point to things such as washing feet, the holy kiss, women wearing veils, and other things that indeed were commanded, yet obviously are not practiced today. Then these who so criticize very smugly conclude that there is something wrong with our hermeneutic because we do not obey these commands. I would like to point out the fallacy of this thinking.
Jesus said to “observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” The word “observe” is not the same as the word obey. I must admit that if Jesus had said, “Obey all things,” then it would be impossible for me to do such, namely, because some commands in the Bible are given to women, and I am not a woman; I am a man. It would be impossible for me to obey the command, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). I simply cannot obey that command, but I can OBSERVE that command. I can respect the fact that God desires wives to submit to their husbands. I can teach that fact of the gospel to others. I can expect out of Christian women for them to obey this command. I cannot directly obey that command, but I can observe that command.
Now, having said this, I believe that we often use the word “obey” in the sense of “observe.” That is, often times in our desire to be pleasing to the Lord and to submit to His will and not our own, we tell others that they must “obey the Lord,” “keep the commandments,” and etc. Now, if one were to take such things to the extreme literal of their interpretation (as do our critical friends), then one must obviously come to the conclusion (as I have illustrated above) that such things are impossible to do. However, if one understand by “keep the commandments” and “obey the Lord” and other similar imperative statements, that we are saying exactly what Jesus told us to do in the great commission, namely, “observe all things,” then there can be no criticism. For one does not necessarily have to literally obey all things in order to observe all things.
Let me illustrate. For one to literally obey Jesus’ command to wash one another’s feet (John 13:14), then I would of necessity have to wash someone else’s feet on a more or less regular basis. However, for me to observe this command, doesn’t necessarily imply that I must wash another’s feet. I may do that to observe this command, but I also may recognize that this example was one that Jesus took from the culture of the day, and that the lesson that Jesus was teaching was in regard to serving one another, not necessarily, specifically, washing one another’s feet. I can observe this command that Jesus gave by being a servant.
Another example, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Cor.16:20, 2 Cor.13:12, 1 Thess.5:26). In some parts of this country, we do not greet each other in such a fashion. Some parts do, I understand. However, for me to literally obey this command, then I must greet everyone with a holy kiss. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with doing that, but that was more or less a cultural practice of the day equivalent to our “hand shake.” I may not literally obey this command, but I can observe this command, by practicing the cultural equivalent of our day.
One more example: when we read in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 of Paul’s direction for women to wear a veil and for men not to wear coverings, the context clearly indicates this practice to be related to culture (as verse 16 indicates). To literally obey in this context would mean that women would have to wear veils in the assembly today and that men would not be allowed to cover their heads. However, to observe such, would not necessarily mean that we must do exactly what they do, but recognize the principle involved in this passage, namely, that women are to respect the authority of their husbands and whatever cultural practices indicate that respect and men are to respect their equality with one another particularly in reference to their head, Christ.
This distinction between “obey” and “observe” really makes all of the difference in the world in understanding how we can literally obey some things that are within the scriptures (such as “This do in remembrance of me,” 1 Corinthians 11:24, 25) whereas, we are not required to literally obey other things in the scripture (such as, “Salute one another with a holy kiss”). We are required to observe, but not necessarily, literally, obey. Understanding this preserves the integrity of the “Command, Example, Necessarily Inference” hermeneutic, because being obedient to commands becomes not so much literally obeying ALL commands, but without a doubt, observing ALL commands. “Obeying” examples, (examples can’t really be “obeyed” per se, but followed) means observing those examples. “Obeying” implications (the term “necessary inference” isn’t really correct, but implication is) means that we must observe the things that the scriptures imply. You can see, that one can definitely “observe” “commands, examples, and necessarily inferences” (or more accurately, 1) direct statements, 2) examples, and 3) implications) without being strictly, literally, obedient to them. So let’s observe what our Lord commanded be done in Matthew 28:20, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”